x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Celebrities could prove crucial in race for the White House

In their battle to be the next US president, Barack Obama and Mitt Romney are also competing to see who can get the most stars in their corner.

WASHINGTON // One has been on stage with Mick Jagger and the legendary blues guitarist BB King.

The other has the backing of the Hollywood tough guy Chuck Norris, as well as the billionaire businessman and TV personality, Donald Trump.

In their battle to be the next US president, Barack Obama and Mitt Romney are also competing to see who can get the most celebrities in their corner.

It is not clear whether such endorsements will have any effect on the outcome of the election on November 6.

But what is certain is that something that was once seen as an undignified pursuit is now commonplace in US politics.

With both candidates struggling to excite their political bases, they have embraced celebrity supporters - while ridiculing the other for doing the same.

The Obama campaign poured scorn over Mr Romney's endorsement by Mr Trump - catchphrase: "You're Fired!" - and has dared him to repudiate The Apprentice host's claim that Mr Obama was not born in the US.

Democrats have also demanded that Mr Romney denounce Ted Nugent, a rock star and gun-rights advocate, who recently described the Obama administration as "evil".

Republicans reject the suggestion that Mr Romney should be tainted by these associations.

The focus of their attacks on Mr Obama is the sheer volume of his celebrity engagements.

Jagger and King appeared at a Blues concert at the White House in February. In April, George Clooney held a fund-raising dinner for the president at his house in California.

On Monday, Mr Obama appeared on Broadway with a number of stars, including the actors Stockard Channing, James Earl Jones and Angela Lansbury.

Next week, he will attend another fund-raising dinner, this one in New York at the home of actress Sarah Jessica Parker, of Sex and the City fame, and her actor husband, Matthew Broderick.

Republicans are trying to paint Mr Obama as more interested in hobnobbing with celebrities than running the country.

A recent policy briefing on the party's website was headlined: "The Obama Economic Plan: Deploy Hollywood".

And a Republican political action committee in April ran an advertisement deriding him as a "celebrity president".

But Mr Obama has deliberately enhanced his pop culture credentials, say campaign experts.

It is a way to "play to his strengths", said Steve McMahon, a media consultant to the former Democratic presidential hopeful Howard Dean.

"When Obama goes on with [TV talk show hosts] Jay Leno or Jimmy Fallon or David Letterman and he's able to sit there and laugh and be self-deprecating and a normal guy, that's why people like him."

He said campaign strategists no longer fear their candidate being tarred with a celebrity brush.

Gone are the days when the appearance on a late-night talk show of a saxophone-playing Bill Clinton caused opprobrium.

ABC's Barbara Walters at the time thought it "undignified", while George H W Bush's White House deemed it "embarrassing".

But Mr Clinton's guest spot on the Arsenio Hall Show in 1992 - at the time, the most popular US chat show - bolstered his approval ratings at a time when he trailed in the polls.

Whether or not it was decisive in winning him the presidency, it was a classic "celebrity moment", said Mr McMahon - and it changed campaigning forever.

Since then, almost every presidential hopeful has appeared on TV talk shows to showcase his or her lighter side.

There is also a financial dimension. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, Mr Obama raised US$9.2 million (Dh33.7m) from the entertainment industry for his presidential run during the 2008 campaign cycle.

But if Democrats have been successful at using celebrity culture to boost their political campaigns, it is the Republican Party that has made best use of them once they have entered politics.

Ronald Reagan is so revered in the party that Mr Romney never wastes an opportunity to invoke his name when presenting economic policy - even though the former actor, promising to cut taxes and reduce government spending, gave Americans "Reaganomics", which effectively meant higher taxes and more government spending.

Arnold Schwarzenegger also made a successful leap from Hollywood to politics and, while the Republican governor of California, he famously blurred the lines between the two by describing his Democrat opponents in the state legislature as "girlie men".

Mr Obama is struggling to recreate the excitement that swept him to power in 2008 and Mr Romney is fighting the perception that he is the Republicans' compromise candidate.

Both candidates are suffering from an enthusiasm gap with their respective bases, which means celebrity endorsements could play a bigger than usual role in the 2012 race.

In 2011, for instance, Mr Obama only raised $1.19m from the entertainment industry. He needs his Hollywood supporters to drum up enthusiasm if he is to match the 2008 figure and boost his campaign.

Mr McMahon suggested more might be expected from the president, who is at ease in the company of celebrities.

In contrast, he said, Mr Romney often seems "wooden" in similar situations.

"When Romney goes out there, he's not funny, he doesn't laugh, and when he does, he sounds a little uncomfortable," he said

"Every time the president does it, it makes people like him more."

okarmi@thenational.ae